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Ferry system to upgrade, expand reservation system starting this summer

BY SCOTT PANITZ

OLYMPIA — In the first phase of a plan to expand and upgrade its reservation program, Washington State Ferries will launch a new vehicle reservation system this June for the Coupeville (Keystone)-Port Townsend and Anacortes-Sidney, B.C. routes, as well as commercial routes in the San Juan Islands.

The reservation system is scheduled to expand in two more phases to the general San Juan Islands routes in 2014 and the Central Puget Sound routes in 2016, pending successful implementation and funding approval.

The new system would be an improvement over the antiquated one the ferries use now, officials claim.

Capt. George Capacci, WSF's deputy chief of operations and construction, said that the new system would make the reservation process both simple and reliable.

“You can pick the route, tell us how big the vehicle is, how many people, and end up making that reservation," he said. "We collect the deposit online and you pay the remainder when you show up at the terminal.”

According to Capacci, who is also the project director for the Vehicle Reservations Program, the new online interface is more user-friendly than the current one and requires the payment of a deposit during the registration process.

The deposit is essentially a down-payment — a portion of the fare paid at the time of the reservation. Upon arrival at a terminal, about 30 minutes before scheduled sailings, drivers redeem their reservations and pay the balance of their fares.  The exact price of the deposit has not been finalized, but it would likely be set at the lowest possible fare at a given time in order to minimize the chance of overcharging, Capacci said.

Ferry officials believe the institution of a deposit should curb no-shows, who pose the greatest problem for the current reservation system that calls for no advance payment.

“They’re a big problem up at Port Townsend/Coupeville because we don’t charge a deposit on our reservation,” said Susan Harris, a senior programs manager for WSF.

Harris said that since the WSF began taking reservations for the Keystone route in May 2008, there have been significantly more no-shows than on the route to Canada, which requires a deposit.

“Reservations were being made that weren’t being kept, so those who wanted to make the reservations couldn’t because they were all taken,” said Port Townsend Ferry Advisory Committee Chairman Tim Caldwell. “So now, when a reservation is made, it’s going to be a realistic reservation.”

“What does change is convenience and predictability for our customers,” Capacci said. “A deposit ensures compliance. If you have some skin in the game, you are more likely to show up for your reservation, which increases our predictability and [the customer’s] flexibility and predictability.”

This helps commuters who need to get to work during peak time each morning avoid being late due to a missed ferry.  It also aids travelers who want to avoid long lines at the terminals and extended periods inside their vehicles.

Port Townsend resident and ferry-rider Mary Obee said that the reservation system so far has been “just a dream.” She commutes daily between her home and the classroom on Whidbey Island where she teaches.

“As a passenger, I’ve had a great experience,” she said. “It reduces the amount of stress. I’m guaranteed a spot.”

The reservation system is part of the state’s plan to make the ferry system a more cost-effective entity.

The vehicle-reservation system manages demand cheaply and saves the state a projected $280 million, WSF officials said. WSF officials had previously thought it would need hefty funding to expand terminals and build new holding areas to meet future demand.

Instead, they have turned to a demand-management model intended to streamline the ferry-riding process.

“We have taken the philosophy here at WSF to change from an asset management plan – build bigger boats, build bigger ships, build bigger terminals to put as many passengers on the vessels as possible,” Capacci said. “That’s not possible in today’s world. I can’t just build bigger ships, you can’t build bigger docks to put more cars on. So what you have to do is manage the demand.”

The Legislature has allocated $5,851,000 for the first phase and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th District), chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said she is optimistic about the reservation system succeeding.

She said ridership would increase if people know they won’t be stuck in hours-long lines.

“I think that the reservation system will help pay for itself,” said the senator, whose district includes Whidbey Island ferry terminals at Coupeville and Clinton.  “We found money to do this first phase and we’re going to work real hard to find the money for the next phases, too. We feel it’s a very integral part of improving this system.”

Caldwell said the reservation system has been successful in his community and can’t wait to see it implemented on the other routes.

“It’s saved a lot of capital money where we don’t have to build larger holding areas,” Caldwell said.

“It’s allowed people, particularly on the Port Townsend side, to come into town, especially during the summer months, where before they had to queue up in long lines along the roadway and stay with their vehicle," he added. "Now, with the reservation system, they can visit and enjoy our community, and head back to the ferry line a half-hour before the ferry leaves. It’s done what we hoped it would do."

Scott Panitz is a WNPA News Bureau reporter.

WNPA News Bureau reporter Maida Suljevic contributed to this article.

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